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Safeguarding Nuclear Energy

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
April 14, 2006

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Nuclear energy is environmentally friendly and relatively cheap to produce—or so say a growing number of environmentalists who have made common cause with industry as global warming has moved to the top of the green agenda. Already responsible for some 20 percent of the electricity in the United States, nuclear power figures prominently in President Bush's new Advanced Energy Initiative (PDF). But is it safe? The Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents are disturbing reminders of the dangers of nuclear power. In a post-9/11 security environment terrorism is an even graver threat: The 9/11 Commission report suggested senior al-Qaeda figures Mohammed Atta and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had both expressed an interest in targeting nuclear plants. A 2004 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests a successful attack on the Indian Point plant, thirty-five miles from Manhattan, could kill as many as 44,000 in the near-term. A new CFR Background Q&A examines anti-terrorism measures at U.S. nuclear plants.

Just this month, officials at Florida's Turkey Point reactor had a scare when they discovered a small hole drilled into a cooling pipe (Miami Herald). It is unclear whether the hole was the result of an honest mistake or an act of sabotage, though it has caused some to question whether security at nuclear plants is sufficient (CSMonitor).

At an April 4 hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) submitted a report suggesting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the group responsible for overseeing U.S. nuclear plants, needs to strengthen its regulations.

Though the GAO did not, other groups have criticized the NRC for not requiring nuclear plants to prepare for a 9/11-style airplane attack. A 2002 Electric Power Research Institute study concluded plants are sufficiently sturdy (PDF) to withstand such an attack, though the report was commissioned by the nuclear industry and its credibility has been widely questioned. The nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap is advocating that nuclear facilities be outfitted with giant steel cages to lessen the impact of an airplane.

Another concern is the security of spent fuel rods. A breech in the pool where the used fuel is cooled could result in a fire and the release of high levels of radiation. A July 2005 CFR meeting considered the dangers posed by spent fuel, and the National Academies performed an in-depth study on the subject. A Congressional Research Service report provides a good overview of nuclear plant security (PDF).

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